Jewish-Christian relations examined 50 years after Nostra Aetate


PROVIDENCE – Two scholars of interreligious studies discussed  the Nostra Aetate and how it has affected modern relations between Jews and Christians – particularly Catholics – during a talk at Providence College on April 4. 

The event, “Theological Reflections on Catholic-Jewish Relations Fifty Years After Nostra Aetate,” is part of a three-year series looking at the past, present and future of Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council. About 40 people attended, including staff, students, community members and donors. 

Arthur Urbano Jr., chair of the Jewish-Catholic Theological Exchange Committee at PC and a faculty member in the theology department, introduced the speakers:  

Phil Cunningham, a professor of theology and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia, and Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, president of Hebrew College, in Boston, and a professor of Pluralism and Jewish Education.

Cunningham began the discussion by focusing on two prominent historical art symbols of the two religions: Synagoga and Ecclesia. Using these symbols, he demonstrated the evolution of the relationship of the religions.

Cunningham said the Greek words synagoga and ecclesia (church) are both “feminine” forms, so artists represented them as female figures. He showed several examples of the two women side by side: Ecclesia is always depicted as proud and upright, and with a crown firmly atop her head, whereas Synagoga is disheveled, often holding a broken staff, and with her crown falling off. These depictions, he said, spoke strongly of the perceptions of Judaism at the time the art was created.

St. Joseph’s recently unveiled a statue on its campus that depicts both women in the way that historically only Ecclesia is shown. The statue shows mutual curiosity and respect between the two women: Ecclesia is looking at a scroll held by Synagoga and Synagoga is looking at a book held by Ecclesia. The piece, called “Nostra Aetate In Our Time,” was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate and attracted a visit from two prominent religious figures of Argentinian origin: Rabbi Abraham Skorka and his friend Pope Francis, who blessed the statue.

“We are on the threshold of being able to do something that we haven’t been able to do in 2,000 years,” said Cunningham:  The past 50 years, he said, have put Catholicism and Judaism on a “path to mutuality.”

Lehmann used a different approach during his talk: rather than examining the connections between art and interreligious relations throughout history, he told of recent events that illustrate how religion obtains information about the other. One story was about a basketball game between Catholic Memorial School, of Dedham, Massachusetts, and Newton North High School, of Massachusetts, in March. As the usual taunting heated up, Catholic Memorial students chanted: “You killed Jesus!” to the mostly Jewish team from Newton. After the game, Catholic Memorial responded with a series of disciplinary measures, including barring the team from attending its championship game.

Lehmann said that since the idea that Jews killed Jesus is no longer a part of mainstream Christian education, this idea must be embedded not in the education, but in the culture.

“The challenge before us is how do we translate [the changing relations between Catholics and Jews] into our community lives?” Lehmann said.

Cunningham’s and Lehmann’s presentations concluded with a discussion of questions to consider as the two religions move forward:  How do we leverage the inextricably linked factors of these two religions to enrich a partnership? How can Jews incorporate Jesus into their identity? How do we address ideas that are embedded in culture rather than education?

Urbano proposed these theological discussions seven years ago as a means of integrating interreligious development that has taken place in intellectual circles into the mainstream ideology. 

“The past 50 years have seen a lot of developments… between Christians and Jews,” he said, noting that these developments have been “quite revolutionary.” He continued, “It’s happened at intellectual levels, but it hasn’t really trickled down.”

Urbano said in an interview that Providence College has a close history with Judaism. The school was somewhat of a haven for Jews from the 1930s through the 1960s, a time when anti-Semitism was prevalent, with Jewish enrollment varying between 10 and 15 percent, he said. 

ARIEL BROTHMAN is a freelance writer who lives in Wrentham, Massachusetts.